Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident.
After stealing Shelly's ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly's body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last "so Shelly" romantic quest. At least that's what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly's and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end.
OPINION: 5 STARS
The Short Version:
Sordid and dark, So Shelly does a remarkable job of twisting the lives of three well known Romantic poets into modern day teenagers. With elegant writing and a flow that hints at the style of the poets, this book centers around the lives of the three characters, giving both backstory and bringing things to the present. Though admittedly mature in content, Roth truly blends the past and the present in his own memorable way.
The Extended Version:
Keats is the narrator of this story, which creates an interesting disconnect. The lives of Gordon and Shelly are told in full, but much of that wasn't witnessed first hand by him. Though this could cause readers to have a hard time connecting to the characters, I found it to actually forge a strong bond to him specifically, as he often is watching from the sidelines and experiencing things from a distance. There are plenty of aspects of Keats' character that are true to the poet he is emboldening, but Roth still twists him into something realistic as well. He comes from a very different background and lifestyle than either Gordon or Shelly, and his overall role in everything still has just as strong an impact despite the outsider notion.
Shelly is fragile in a lot of ways, obsessed with Gordon to the point of destruction, and quirky in ways that set her on the outside. It is easy to read about her and imagine it being real in the present, and the way people react to her is just as believable. She's one of those people who simply cannot shake their melancholy for any length of time, always drifting back into it for one reason or another. The way Keats views her comes through in subtle ways, and his affection towards her is almost heartbreaking, particularly in light of how much she loves Gordon.
Gordon Byron is arrogant and selfish, unable to do hardly anything without thinking of how it would benefit him. Sex crazed and almost insatiable in his sexual appetite, much of the lurid nature of this book comes from his character. He is a very hard character to like, and yet so much of what led to how he is in the present is shown that it is understandable, even if hard to stomach. Though Roth has built on what is known about Lord Byron, the way similar childhood events can impact someone even now comes through very strongly, which does add a sympathetic component to an otherwise gruff character.
The plot centers around Gordon and Keats suddenly working together, after years of simply being both friends of Shelly but having no other link to each other, to take her ashes and spread them at her request. In the midst of that basic event, the full backstory of Gordon and Shelly's lives are told, switching between childhood to not long before the current events of her death. Despite the changing and intermingling timelines, Roth has a steady flow and ties everything together in a way that is not jarring or hard to follow.
The way Roth has tied these three characters together is beautifully done. Knowing nothing of the poets, it is still readable as modern day teenagers, rapt with issues and harsh childhoods. Their personalities are strikingly different, and while hints of the poets can be found in each, he has clearly molded them into something his own as well. Though Roth had a solid background to build on, he still writes it in a way that is completely understandable in the modern times.
There is a certain rambling quality to this book, with long sentences and a narrative style that isn't often found in current YA. While I really enjoyed reading it both for mood and the links to the past, I can see why it would be hard for some people to read. Regardless, I found Roth's writing to be very elegant, and while it doesn't hold the typical YA type voice, there is a clear element of it in Keats' narration even as he tells about the lives of the other two.
This is not a plot progressed book, but rather introspective and primarily a narration of what led to the events of Shelly's death, and what happens after as Keats and Gordon steal her ashes and try to fulfill her last wish. Content wise, this one is certainly mature and upper YA, but it isn't without cause or reason that Roth has included even the most twisted of elements. The motivations and drives of Shelly and especially Gordon are clearly presented and strongly maintained, and there is, overall, great character development and depth. Pleasantly different from much of its genre and unique in premise and twisting of the poets, So Shelly blends the Romantic era with the present in a great way.